It was a three day walk to Ustengrav, in Hjaalmarch Hold, and as they headed out she saw the sun was already dipping low into the horizon, nestling in soon to rest behind the mountains. It would be dark soon, and she didn’t know far they would get before they had to stop for the night.
Traveling with Vilkas was nothing like she’d imagined. She’d expected him to be thoughtful, silent, ever watchful for danger, and while he did certainly keep close watch on their surroundings, he was more talkative than she’d ever seen him. She liked that side of him, the unexpected new openness they shared, as he talked about growing up in Jorrvaskr and the mischief he and Farkas used to get into as small boys.
“We used to torment poor old Tilma,” he shook his head. “It’s a wonder she didn’t take us out back and tan our hides, but she never did. She loved us too much.”
She tried to imagine the two of them small, but considering their size, it was almost difficult. It didn’t stop her mind from wandering though, her imagination trying to show her what her own sons might look like one day, if she and Vilkas were ever blessed with children. She didn’t know how that worked. If the beastblood made it impossible for them to have a family of their own, if Vilkas even wanted to have children one day.
“Do you like children?”
He tilted his head to look at her. “I haven’t been around many children, unless you count Farkas.”
“You mean when we are married,” he grinned. “To be honest, I never really thought much about it. I never expected I would find a woman who… you know… understood my unique curse, much less one who shared it.”
“Could we even have children?”
“I don’t see why not. Despite our curse, we are still a man and a woman.” There was that grin again, and it made her feel a longing inside that she knew only his touch could sate. “But would you really want to bring a child into this world, things being what they are? War… dragons…our curse?”
“I don’t know. My mother used to say that it was children who made the world worth living in. They brought hope to the hopeless, laughter to the weary and light into the darkness. She used to say, show me a child’s smile that isn’t bright enough to shed light on the darkness, and I will show you the end of our days.”
“Hmm,” he thought on that for a while, the two of them moving quietly along the road together, side by side as the moons began to rise. She felt their pull, calling to the beast inside her, drawing on her soul, but she pushed it away. “Your mother sounds like she was a very smart woman. I bet she was very beautiful as well.”
“My father said I looked just like her, and that one day he would have to lock me in a tower to keep the men in our village from stealing me away. I never believed him.”
“Your father sounds like he was also a smart man, and an honest man as well.”
“He was a simple man.” She’d pushed so much of that sorrow deep down inside her, that drawing it back to the surface hurt more than she could have ever dreamed. “A blacksmith, though he always said he wanted to be a warrior, he was more of a family man at heart. He used to say he gave up all his foolish dreams when he met my mother, and he never had a single regret. I told myself after the Imperials killed him that he would have wanted me to take up arms and avenge him, but now I’m not so sure that’s what he would have wanted at all.”
“Whatever your father wanted for you, you are on the path the gods chose for you, Luthien. The path you were meant to walk.”
“No,” he stopped on the road and turned into her, reaching up to grip her arms. “Don’t guess, never guess. Know, Luthien.” He pointed to her chest. “Know it in here. In your heart and soul. You are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to do. Never forget that.”
She swallowed and lifted her face, saw the light of the moon gleaming in his eyes. “I won’t.”
“Good.” His grip on her arms relaxed, his face softening too as a slow smile played upon his lips. “We should find somewhere quiet and safe to camp for the night. I’m getting hungry, and I don’t think either of us got much sleep last night.”
She brushed past him, holding his stare as she walked. “If you think you’ll get any sleep tonight, you’re a fool.”
He laughed, falling into step beside her, eager to find a campsite.
There was a chill in the air, and she knew morning would bring a glistening layer of frost to the ground, but Vilkas built a strong fire while she set up their bedrolls and sat down to rifle through her pack for food. He sat beside her, the two of them quiet now, watching flame lap at the darkness as they shared a haunch of venison, some cheese and bread and passed a bottle of Black-Briar mead between them to wash it all down.
In the distance, she heard the bay of a wolf, and then another lifting its voice in chorus. Their song awoke her wolf spirit, and there was an almost undeniable urge to run with her lover, hunt with him beneath the moons, the two of them giving in to their animal nature and letting the weight of the world go for a little while. What would it be like? How would it feel to make love with him in that way? Their bodies overrun with insatiable hunger and animal desire?
But Vilkas thought the beastblood was a curse, and she didn’t know what she thought about it anymore. It was dangerous, and she knew it, but it was a part of who she was now and there was no turning back. If she gave into its calling, would it overtake her again, the way it had when she and Aela had hunted down the Silver Hand?
“How long has it been for you?” she asked, handing the bottle back to him and wrapping her arms around her knees, drawing them close to her body so she could rest her head to look over at him.
Vilkas had heard the wolves too, and he knew what she meant. He crossed his legs and rested his hands on his thighs, tilting his head back as he tried to remember. “First seed, I think it was. Just a week or so before you came to Jorrvaskr.”
“That’s what you and Kodlak were talking about the night I came.”
“Aye,” he nodded. “It was so hard for me to resist the call of the beast.”
“Is it still difficult for you?”
“At times,” his voice grew quieter than it had been just moments before. “I couldn’t understand how Kodlak had held back for so long, how he could expect me not to give in.”
“How long has it been for him?”
“More than a year now.”
“Yes, it still amazes me that he is so strong, especially since he took the rot. It’s not as easy for him to concentrate as it once was, but I fear he is not long for this world.” There was sadness in his voice then. “He told me once that if he could take it all back, he would. Farkas and I were the last to take the curse, and then you… Kodlak never intended for that.” His hand came up to move a lock of hair from her cheek and he tucked it back behind her ear. “Neither did I. That was why I kept sending you so far away. I thought if I could just keep you from Skjor…”
“It was my choice.”
“I know,” he admitted. “I just don’t understand why you made it.”
“Farkas transformed when we were in Dustman’s Cairn,” she began. “I was trapped behind a gate that had fallen and the Silver Hand had surrounded him. He would have been slaughtered if he hadn’t, and I couldn’t do a damn thing to help him. I asked him later about the Circle, asked him if that meant I would have to take the beastblood too, if I wanted to be a part of it, but he said no. It was my choice. When Skjor asked me, I thought about you, not just you, but all of you. You were my family, and if I was to be one of you, I wanted to share all of your burdens.”
“It is a burden I wish I could have spared you from,” he lamented.
“But now you don’t have to carry it alone.”
She didn’t even tell him that she wanted to run with him beneath the moons, but decided then as he made love to her beneath the clear sky, a canvas of brilliant stars winking and shimmering above them, that she would never let the beast overtake her again. She would be strong, like Vilkas, like Kodlak, and hold her wolf inside, even if it tore her soul apart.
She watched over him as he slept then, a fitful rest that made him whimper and toss, withheld mutterings passing across his lips until he jolted upright in the dark, wide-eyed and afraid. When he looked at her, the fear began to fade, but his body remained stiff, even when Luthien drew him back into her arms, soothed him with kisses and whispers that everything would be all right.
Come morning, she woke from her own troubled sleep to find him bent before the fire warming his hands and staring off into the distance. She walked up to stand beside him and he lifted his face to meet her gaze. There was blood drying on his hands, and when he saw the alarm twist her features, he gestured toward a pile of wolves, three of them, dead and stacked together just a few feet away from camp.
“They came in early, sniffing around the fire. They could smell us, the beastblood drawing them in, and they would have left us alone out of respect, but…”
She lowered her hand atop his head and he rested his cheek against her leg. He didn’t have to say anymore. She understood, and it made her very sad.